Horizons Summer Camp – A Light on the Horizon
By Caryn B. Davis / Photos courtesy Horizons Summer Camp
Kerri was born autistic and deaf during a time when the only resources available for the developmentally challenged were institutionally based. But in the 1970s two things changed for her. The first was the passing of Public Law 94-142, which “guaranteed a free appropriate public education to each child with a disability.” This law positively impacted millions of children nationwide because now there were mandated funding and programs to help this underserved population.
The second life-altering event for Kerri was when she attended summer camp at Horizons, located in South Windham, Connecticut. Horizons is a non-profit organization whose mission is to create and sustain person-centered opportunities for people with special needs where they live, learn, work, and play.
After camp, Kerri got a job at a “sheltered workshop” performing assembly line labor for sub-minimum wage. This was the only source of employment back then for people like herself. Naturally, she was very unhappy, not only with the monotony of the work, but she wasn’t learning any new skills. After speaking with Chris and Kerri, the folks from the group home decided to enroll her in a local art class to see if this would be a better fit.
Fast forward to 2016; Kerri now has her own studio and gallery on Main Street in Willimantic. Her boldly shaped and vibrantly colored acrylic paintings have won numerous awards; and most recently, she was one of four painters in the state to receive the Connecticut Artists’ Fellowship grant.
“Everyone has unique gifts and talents, and we find it rewarding to be the ones to bring it out in the individual. A lot of other human services organizations assist the same population we do, but here at Horizons we do it in a tailor made way that helps people find their passion and be able to live it,” says Chris.
Chris and her sister, Kathleen McNaboe, co-founded Horizons in 1979 when they were both special education teachers. They started with the summer camp because camp is fun and created programs that could be modified to best suit the needs, interests, and capabilities of the individual, rather than the disability. This was a very different modus operandi than most other organizations whose approach was less holistic.
Campers range in age from eight to thirty-nine, but there is also a special masters program for those forty and over. (The oldest camper they currently have is eighty). For every five campers, there is one counselor to ensure their experiences can be customized accordingly.
The campers and counselors bunk together in cabins at night while engaging in numerous activities throughout the day that include swimming, boating, arts and crafts, fitness, drama, pioneering, music, language arts, movement and dance, physical education, horse back riding, fishing, gardening, mini-golf, tennis, and basketball.
New activities are added if a camper expresses an interest, while all are uniquely designed to promote their success, self-esteem, and independence. For example, the pool is equipped with a ramp so those with mobility issues can still enter the water. The vegetable garden has raised beds enabling campers with limited stamina and movement to access them while seated. Those who want to try horseback riding are able to mount the equine from a ramped platform instead of from the ground.
A portion of a camper’s day is spent enjoying these leisurely pursuits, but Horizons also has an Educational Support Services Program for learning real world skills that can translate into paying positions. Additionally, the skills they learn are put to immediate use by helping to run the camp and sustain some of the other programs Horizon oversees.
For example, people interested in a career as a receptionist, or in retail, or in food service can gain experience in the Horizon office, the onsite gift shop, or the cafeteria. Folks who enjoy working outdoors can learn pool care, maintenance and water testing; or landscaping, which includes building fences, seasonal clean up, weeding, mowing, and stacking and delivering firewood. There is also an ongoing program for the hospitality industry.
Once the individual has had adequate training, Horizons assists them in securing employment within the community. Thus far, they have placed over 100 individuals in medical centers, schools, retail and grocery stores, pet shops, and restaurants, just to name a few.
“They go with job coaches to support them in doing their job in the best manner possible. Some coaches stay until they do the job independently; others stay the whole time. We support that range of folks,” says Chris. “This is about the dignity, responsibility, and joy of holding a job and earning a paycheck. We help people find what they like to do, wherever that may take them. We think outside the box and work together with individuals, their families, and communities to create opportunities for people to realize their dreams.”
This service is also available to high school students who are transitioning into adulthood and need training, employment, and housing. And, through their Supported Living Services, Horizons finds them homes or apartments with a wide variety of “custom-tailored supports, from cooking and shopping, to hiking, to going to the movies, or visiting museums and amusement parks.”
The Horizons campus is situated on 47 wooded acres; and in addition to the buildings that are utilized by the camp, they have recently upgraded their facilities to include the Milne Family Commons, designed by architect Duncan Milne, and the Education & Employment Center where they offer services year round. The Commons boasts a large dining area, the retail store, and a classroom used by students in the Educational Support Services program, but it also provides a gathering space for games, music classes, and dances. Kerri’s artwork adorns the walls.
Horizons also helps people who are at the end of their career,who want to retire, by providing medical, physical and occupational therapies, community based activities, and one-on-one support.
“Now that we have these other services, we have people who have stayed with us throughout their lives.It’s not uncommon for us to know someone from an early age in school until their death. It’s just like a family member,” says Chris.“It’s encouraging to watch them grow and see these folks having great experiences from the support we give. It’s so gratifying.It reminds us that we are doing the right thing, and what we do makes a difference. What more can you ask for?”
For more information log onto www.horizonsct.org.